Youth Development Summer Reading List

with contributions from education researchers & other youth development enthusiasts

John W. Gardner believed we must invest in youth: not just in anticipation of the adults they will become, but also as essential contributors to their current communities. He also believed in self-renewal; that is, taking countervailing measures to avoid the danger of complacency, of growing rigidity, or of imprisonment in our own comfortable habits and opinions.

For the third year in a row, our staff have generated this multi-genre reading list to share books that have encouraged our own self-renewal as it pertains to a subject we all take to heart: youth development.

What books would you add to this list? Leave us a note in the comments!


A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

This book’s protagonist is a quirky, lonely misanthrope who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the strangers next door: an Iranian immigrant and her pair of young daughters. We recommend this novel to readers with an interest in human resilience, dark humor, and the power of neighborhoods to unite residents from all walks of life. Read an excerpt.


Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan

Learn why “living the playful life” is essential to our social skills, adaptability, intelligence, creativity, and ability to problem solve. Blending research from multiple disciplines — neuroscience, biology, psychology, and social science — with real human stories, this book models the interdisciplinary approach we find so invigorating in conducting youth development research. Read an excerpt.


Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Anthony S. Bryk, Louis M. Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Paul G. LeMahieu

This volume is essential reading for anyone who aims to collaborate across sectors to connect research with practice and drive meaningful change. Readers will learn about the six principles behind one key approach: improvement science carried out in what the authors call networked communities. Read an excerpt.


See You In The Morning by Mairead Case

Told in dream-like vignettes, this novel portrays the narrator’s last summer of high school in a small Midwestern town. Case perfectly captures what it is like to be young and introspective: the awkwardness, the self-doubt, and the experience of taking in strange surroundings. Themes include faith, friendship, and the power of small kind acts. Read an excerpt.


Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty

A principle of youth development: youth need caring adults in their lives. When the author was 12 years old, he met a woman in a magic shop whose insights would change the course of his future forever. Described on his website as part memoir, part science, part inspiration, and part practical instruction, this book shares tips on how to live with an open heart. Read an excerpt.


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This novel begins with the story of two half-sisters: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written as a series of concise vignettes that chart the family’s lineage for seven generations through 300 years of Ghanaian and American history, this well-researched volume will resonate with adults and teens alike. Read an excerpt.


Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

An expert in the sociology of emotion, Arlie Russell Hochschild traveled from her liberal hometown of Berkeley, California to Louisiana bayou country. There, she listened to residents’ stories in an effort to understand and document what it is like to live in “red” America. Hers is a quest to cultivate empathy, a crucial skill for anyone working with youth in communities. Read an excerpt.


Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir by Eddie Huang

Sense of belonging has been a hot topic among youth development aficionados this year, and Eddie Huang’s book gives us plenty to think about. Now an esteemed chef and TV host, Huang was born to Taiwanese parents and raised in a suburban Orlando cul-de-sac, where families of color were few and far between. Both bawdy and sophisticated in tone, this memoir charts the author’s quest to define his own unique identity and find his place in the world of food. Read an excerpt.


Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

This book-length essay calls upon Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli’s eye-opening experiences as a translator and interpreter for unaccompanied Latin-American child migrants seeking asylum in the US. It is a must-read for any youth-development enthusiast who’s following the news about undocumented youth. Read an excerpt.


The Golden Road: Some Notes on My Gentrification by Caille Millner

Caille Millner spent her early years growing up Black in a predominantly Latino lower-middle-class neighborhood in East San Jose. As an adolescent, she lived in the more affluent Almaden Valley and went on to attend Harvard. In this fascinating memoir, Millner explores the complexity of identity narratives, which, she reveals, are seldom as straightforward as they seem. Read an excerpt.


Design-Based School Improvement: A Practical Guide for Education Leaders by Rick Mintrop

This practical guide engages a critical challenge facing today’s education leaders: how to address issues of equity in schools. Featuring a skillful blend of theory and on-the-ground experiences, this book is a must-read for anyone wishing to bridge the gap between research and practice. Learn more.


Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Set in small town Ohio in 1977, this book charts the backstory and the aftermath of one family facing the untimely and unresolved death of a teenager. Equal parts mystery and family saga, this book engages issues like history, grief, isolation, and the experience of growing up mixed-race. Read an excerpt.


The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Dedicated to all refugees, everywhere, this short story collection takes a look at the lives of Vietnamese Americans and their families as they struggle to make new homes in the US at the end of the Vietnam War. Raised in nearby San Jose with two degrees from UC Berkeley, the author’s life story resonates with our interest in all things local. Read an excerpt.


Commonwealth: A Novel by Ann Patchett

Loosely inspired by the author’s LA childhood, Commonwealth is a tenderhearted novel made up of vignettes — told out of sequence, from different narrators — about one blended family over the course of 50 years. This complex structure sets the stage for readers to think about the connections between siblings and parents and children, and how those connections may shift over time. Read an excerpt.


The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz

When young people experience trauma, it can have a tremendous impact on how they grow. Through stories of young survivors, this book explores how terror and extreme stress affect the mind, and how children recover from trauma. Read an excerpt.


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

One benefit of reading young adult fiction as grown ups: it helps us recall what being a teen really feels like. This heartfelt novel chronicles a friendship between two Mexican-American boys as they grapple with issues related to family, identity, and sexuality in the summer of 1987. Read an excerpt.


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Drawing on his experiences growing up in a poor rust-belt steel town, the author blends memoir with cultural criticism to examine the realities of white, working class America. This passionate book raises stark questions about the American Dream, a relevant topic for anyone working with youth. Read an excerpt.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This award-winning memoir in verse focuses on the author’s childhood in the 1960s and 70s, during which she endured segregation, frequent moves to new US states, and the isolation of growing up Jehovah’s Witness. This book helped us consider notions of home, the importance of history, and what it means to live as a youth of color in the not-so-distant past as well as today. Read an excerpt.